Moments Of Serendipity: Daily Life In Afghanistan

Good travel pushes you to let go of control, and Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. Here, daily life is dictated by security decisions, which roads are safe to travel on and which ones are not, and if you are trying to stick to a concrete plan, something will surely get in the way. Afghanistan is the place for serendipity, a place that when you come to understand that you have absolutely no control, you can give in to be open to the many things that can happen all around you.

There is a constant balance between fear and awareness of your surroundings and being open and receptive to the unknown. In the midst of conflict there is beauty; the call to prayer in the dark of the early morning, a stranger offering you a glass of tea, a young woman smiling because you asked her how she was doing. If there were a definition of daily life in Afghanistan for a traveler, it would go something along the lines of: constant change peppered with frequent tea breaks.

Traveling as a woman, I was at all times aware of my surroundings and my own presence in relation to the people around me. My headscarf always seemed to be falling off. Warm in the midday heat I would go to push up my sleeves, and then remember that they had to stay covered. Men were everywhere. There were stares, a lot of them, but a few moments into a personal exchange and those stares often turned to smiles.On an afternoon in Babur Gardens, an historic enclosed park that is a popular place of respite from the dust, diesel and general chaos that defines everyday Kabul life, my friend Tony and I walked down a gravel, tree-lined path. It was the second day of Eid, a Muslim holiday, and families were out in abundance, picnicking and taking a moment to enjoy the trees and flowers.

As we walked, an old man stood up, a glass of tea in his hand. He motioned to us to come towards him. Traveling in a conflict zone makes you constantly alert to your surroundings, accepting that you must respect local customs at all times and that you should never become complacent. You have to trust your gut. Had a stranger motioned to me on a street corner, I may have turned in the other direction, but here in the privacy of an enclosed garden space, filled with happy families celebrating a holiday, I felt a certain level of calmness and security.

“I think we have to go over there,” I said to Tony.


We crossed the path and joined the family. The older man invited us to sit down on a blanket and he handed us both glasses of tea. We exchanged the series of salutations and “happy Eid,” an exchange that I had gotten comfortable doing in Dari. The man and his family smiled.

Then we launched into the get-know-you-without-speaking-your-language game, and entertaining combination of hand motions, my mediocre Dari vocabulary, and the family’s limited grasp of English phrases.

In Dari, the man asks if I am Tony’s wife.

“Balay” we both nod. Yes. This “wedding of convenience” as we later called it is easier than the truth.

The man motions to the smiling baby in his lap, whose eyes are outlined in kohl (a sign of prosperity I later learn) and points to me. “Shomaa?”

Do we have a child?

Tony has a son, so he nods. I realize this has now made me not only a wife of convenience but a mother of convenience as well.

“Balay.” Yes.

The man says a long sentence, of which I recognize the words for “where” and “America.” He is asking where the child is.

“In America,” says Tony.

The family smiles. I am hoping that they assume we have left the child with the grandparents and I am not being seen as an infidel mother who leaves her child behind.

To change the subject, I turn to one of the teenage daughters.

“Maqbulas,” I say to her, pointing to her headscarf, a striking purple color with beaded tassels, indicating that it’s pretty. As it’s Eid, she’s wearing her finest.

She laughs in a shy manner, and then moves from her blanket to sit next to me. She has noticed the assortment of bracelets on my wrist. She pulls a bracelet of plastic heart beads from her purse and puts it on my wrist.

“Tashakur,” I repeat several times. “Besyaar maqbul.” It’s very beautiful. She and her sisters smiled.

We learn from the younger boys in the group that can speak a bit of English that the older woman sitting behind the girls is the girls’ mother. Her face is tan and wrinkled, framed tightly by her black headscarf. “Their father and her husband died,” he says matter of factly. My Dari and his English aren’t good enough for me to figure out how the entire family fits together, but I assume that the older man is an uncle of some sort. So much pain and love in one family history.

We amuse them; this odd American couple that leaves their baby back in their home country, with a wife that knows a few Dari words. They in turn enthrall me, taking us into their family moment. Pouring tea for strangers.

Eventually we excuse ourselves, thanking them profusely for the tea. I leave feeling honored, like I was just given the kind of moment that will forever change your perspective. A moment that can’t be replicated. A moment that will later bring tears to my eyes because it’s representative of a shared humanity we so rarely see in the mass media. A moment that only happens because you let go of control.

We return to the rest of our group. It’s time for another glass of tea.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Mountain2Mountain: Advocating For Voice And Women’s Empowerment In Afghanistan


Three years ago I was in Telluride, Colorado attending Mountainfilm festival. I was particularly blown away by a series of huge photographs that depicted life in Afghanistan. I remember being particularly moved by one of a beggar woman in a burqa, sitting in the middle of a dusty street with a boy sitting in her lap. I had read, and even written about the Streets of Afghanistan photo exhibit, in the days leading up to the festival, but seeing it was completely different. That was the same day I went to listen to Shannon Galpin give a presentation on both the photo exhibit and her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain.

Galpin and I had corresponded back and forth via email, but this was the first time that I had met her in person.

I sat almost shell-shocked as she told the story of her rape at the age of 19, and then the subsequent rape of her sister several years later and the impetus for deciding that she would not be a victim. Then came the birth of her daughter, a moment where Galpin realized that all women and girls around the world deserve the same rights that, being born in the United States, her own daughter would have. She launched Mountain2Mountain in late 2006 with that exact idea in mind, paving a way for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Committed to the power of voice, one of Mountain2Mountain’s first projects was collaboration between Afghan and Western photographers to document real life in Afghanistan, not through the war or conflict lens, but Afghanistan as Afghans saw it. The result was a life-size interactive exhibit that provided a different view of this corner of the world; a corner that we so often see but so rarely emotionally connect with.

“The goal with Streets of Afghanistan was to bring the images that capture the beauty and spirit of this country back to Afghanistan itself; a chance for Afghans to appreciate art and perhaps instill a sense of pride in the beauty and soul of their country. On a global level, this series of exhibits also shows the world that you can do things like this in a country like Afghanistan. Art, and street art in particular, isn’t off limits because of ongoing conflict – in fact, in situations like the one in Afghanistan, it is even more important to inspire, to ignite conversation, and to celebrate community,” says Galpin.

Three years after seeing “Streets of Afghanistan” in Telluride, I found myself in Kabul producing that exact same exhibit, seeing Afghanistan for myself, but also the reactions of the local community to a show that was all about showcasing them; sometimes things come full circle in a very serendipitous way.

As I unfolded yet another 10’x17′ photo and propped it up against a stone wall, my headscarf falling off and a group of men standing and staring at the crazy foreign woman, I was reminded that in a time of conflict and destruction, there is so much room for beauty and creativity. Empowering voice, in this case through art, means empowering grassroots activism.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Why Would Anyone Ever Go To Afghanistan?

“I got asked to go to Afghanistan.”

The parents obviously weren’t excited with that statement and what ensued was a “we support you but this is going to be difficult for us” conversation. When you pitch your parents on traveling to a conflict zone, this conversation is inevitable.

I would have that same conversation with lots of people in the weeks before taking off to a country that most of us associate with terrorism and suicide bombings. It’s not shocking that my friends were nervous; Afghanistan isn’t one of those places you just go to. Traveling to this part of the world is a calculated risk – a matter of gathering all possible information before you leave knowing fully well that you’ll never be able to be absolutely prepared for what awaits you on the other side of the world.

But I wanted to go. I had to go.

My friend Shannon Galpin, the executive director of Mountain2Mountain, had asked me to come along to help in the production of a series of public photo exhibits. Afghanistan is the kind of place that you don’t just throw a few things in a backpack, buy a Lonely Planet guide (although there is one), get a visa and get on a plane. But it’s also not North Korea either; the borders are open, passport control is just like in any country and in Kabul there are hotels, guesthouses and coffee shops with wireless.In the 1960s and 1970s Afghanistan attracted overland wanderers and climbers alike, but in the wake of several decades of foreign invasions, war and Taliban control, it has yet to return to the tourist destination of yore. Conflict zones attract a certain adventurous spirit, however, and a handful of groups like Hinterland Travel do offer tours for those in the need of a special kind of adrenaline kick. As it’s home to many a nonprofit and development project, you can also travel to Afghanistan as part of an experiential education with Global Exchange, what the organization deems a “Reality Tour.” Their most recent focused on women making change, connecting participants with women and organizations on the ground taking reconstruction into their own hands.

But let’s say you are that adventure-seeking, can’t-do-another-trip-on-a-Thai-beach kind of traveler – the question remains: should you go to Afghanistan? Ultimately, that’s a personal choice. The State Department warns against it, and after having traveled there myself, I would be hard pressed to tell someone to go if they had absolutely no contacts on the ground. A conflict zone is the kind of place that it’s essential to know the right people and to have some sort of community to fall back on when something goes wrong. But people go, and the ones that do, find a very different people and place than what we so often see in the Western media.

Knowing that I probably wasn’t going to head to Afghanistan on an individual trek anytime soon, the chance to go with Mountain2Mountain was one I couldn’t turn down, and one letter of introduction, a few extra passport photos and an Afghan visa later, I found myself on the long trip to Kabul.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Get Anything Hand-Delivered By Travelers From Anywhere

hand-delivered stuff from mmMuleIn my two years as an expat in Istanbul, I’ve asked visiting friends to bring me everything from bacon to Ziploc bags and iPads, and in return, I visit home with boxes of Turkish delight, baklava and coffee. But for those long winter months when I don’t know anyone visiting Turkey, how am I supposed to get my chocolate-and-peanut-butter fix? Now there’s a social network that connects locals and travelers who can bring you anything hand-delivered from anywhere in the world. mmMule aims to get hard-to-find or foreign items to locals everywhere, and rewards travelers with a local experience for delivering it.

Let’s say you are visiting Paris. You can log on to mmMule and find locals who want stuff ranging from Big Red gum to South African biltong cured meat. Maybe you want another jar of that Dijon mustard you loved on your last trip to France or some good old American mac & cheese if you’re abroad (seriously, all expats miss mac & cheese, and yes, we know we can make it ourselves). You can post a request on mmMule and wait to be connected with a traveler who can bring it. In exchange for the delivery, the “mule” is repaid for the cost of the item and rewarded in some way, from drinks at a local bar to an overnight stay in the local’s home. Illegal, embargoed and other illicit stuff is strictly verboten, so don’t think you can get someone to re-enact “Midnight Express.”

Should you feel inspired to help someone in need of more than supermarket goodies, you can check out the listings for AngelMule and bring supplies to non-profits. Your donations can be rewarded with cultural experiences like stays with local families or just an offer of “a big hug and eternal gratitude.” They’d probably be even more grateful if you threw some peanut butter cups into the deal.

Get whatever you want at mmMule.com or volunteer to bring stuff to someone else.